This is the urgent question I received in my in-box last week. It came from a woman who was clearly becoming increasingly panic-stricken at the impending life changes she will experience soon.
If you are feeling emotionally detached from your surroundings, your friends and your family, you are most likely experiencing a symptom of anxiety disorder. Some people say they have a sense of unreality. It’s also referred to as derealization and depersonalization – a sense that nothing is real.
Many people think they are losing their minds because they know these feelings are not normal. It’s a scary experience, and it can happen to anyone who is under severe stress for an extended period of time.
The woman I’ve been helping with her anxiety-related problems emailed me with concerns about these feelings that had taken over her life. She was about to get married and move away from the family home where she’d always felt safe and secure.
Suddenly, she would have to ‘make it’ in her own home with all the responsibilities it entails. The stress of having to sort out in her own mind all the drastic changes that face her was overwhelming.
For the first time in her life, she had anxiety disorder. The attacks only hit her in a few areas, but they were gradually filtering across her entire life. That’s when the feeling of ‘not belonging’, of ‘feeling detached’, struck. She became very afraid of what it meant and how bad it would get.
Apart from feeling detached, she was constantly feeling sleepy even though she believed she was getting sufficient sleep.
Like many anxiety-sufferers, she feared that she was going crazy – losing her mind. The disconcerting thing for her is that she has always been very close to her family and always under their protection.
When she developed an increasing sense of distance between her and her family and coworkers she became extremely worried. She felt like she ‘doesn’t belong’ with them. She was experiencing depersonalization or derealization.
If you experience similar symptoms, here’s what’s causing them.
First off, sleepiness is an escape mechanism and so is being in a state of feeling detached. They are common side effects of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorder and panic trigger in us a fear for our safety. Feeling anxious is not normal so we believe there must be something terribly wrong and that we must protect ourselves in whatever way we can.
It all comes back to the fight or flight mechanism that goes into action when we are in threatening or perceived threatening situations. The unresolved conflict of what to do triggers anxiety attacks. If allowed to continue, it becomes anxiety disorder.
In a crisis, our bodies send messages to prepare to defend ourselves. We increase our heart rate so that more energy is available in our muscles so we can run from the danger if need be.
If you’ve ever had a near-miss accident or been involved in a fender bender, you will know that feeling of being disassociated for a very short time. What happened is you separated your emotional from the logical side of your brain so you could deal with the crisis in a way that your decisions would not be clouded by emotion.
When your emotions are confused or threatened, we react similarly by separating our emotions from our logical brains, thereby creating a sense of disassociated and detached. Your body is doing what is necessary to protect your emotions, which can be fragile sometimes.
In the case of my contact, she was dreading the whole idea of moving away from the comfort of her family home – lots of questions and doubts. A great deal of emotions were involved… ranging from happiness about the marriage and fear of the unknown… too much for her to deal with. If she didn’t develop some level of detachment from her surroundings and her immediate family, the effect of the mounting stress on her emotions would be unhealthy.
Sleep acts as an escape from the stress. It also provides relief from the constant pressure we’re under. Although my contact thinks she sleeps well, chances are she doesn’t get proper restful sleep. This prevents her body from ‘repairing’ itself from each day’s stresses, both physically and mentally.
On top of this, the lack of sleep alone can cause a sense of detachment because our minds want to sleep but our bodies don’t allow it. It’s not unlike the feeling we get when we are getting very tired at the end of the day and ready for bed. Our brains are beginning to shut down in preparation for sleep. This state creates a type of separation of our minds from our bodies.
It’s important not to get too obsessed about feeling detached when you are going through anxiety disorder and panic, and experiencing that sense of derealization. Although it’s uncomfortable to feel that way, and certainly disconcerting, it’s not serious. It’s self-preservation tactics at work.
We use our emotions when dealing with friends, family and coworkers. They help us to understand how others are feeling and what their conversations really mean. Our emotions are always at work as part of our communication network. Without emotions, it would be difficult for us to truly understand the intent behind what people say and do.
When your body feels the need to put its emotions in a protective place, it blocks those over-worked emotions so they can rest and not burn out. When we feel stronger mentally and our bodies are properly aligned again, that blockage will be released and the feelings of connection between us and our surroundings will return to normal.
What can you do in the meantime?
It’s not easy, but the first step is to try not to worry about those feelings. One way to do that is to find something to distract you. For instance, do something enjoyable and relaxing, like going swimming, reading a good book, taking a drive in the country, visit your favorite place, take part in your favorite community event.
If lack of sleep is the problem, try something different. Instead of lying in bed trying to get to sleep, try staying awake instead. Pull out a book and read – when you feel sleepy, don’t give in. Try to stay awake as long as possible until your body just refuses to obey. There’s no scientific evidence this will work – it’s just a theory that’s certainly worth a try.
To sort through your crisis, however, you need to take more definite steps. Your first goal must be to take back control. Here’s what we’re aiming for:
- First… control your thoughts.
- Second… control your life.
- The end result… you control your anxiety disorder.
If you have a pressing issue that needs resolving and it’s causing you distress – or if you have a major life change coming up and you are feeling at sea – there are things you can do right now.
Let’s take my friend’s case. She’s getting married and moving into a new home with her husband, leaving her family behind. She doesn’t know what to expect and this is making her very nervous and anxious. The underlying derealization has her downright scared.
Get to the root of your distress and take control
If you’re planning to get married or start out on your own, try this.
Take a sheet of paper and write down every single thing that will change, from organizing your own home and paying your own bills to deciding who gets the first shower and who gets the remote. You might note that your new home will be quieter because there will be fewer people around.
Your list can include your food choices, stocking the medicine cabinet and kitchen cupboards, what kinds of problems might arise with the house or apartment and how you’ll deal with them, how you’ll keep track of the money and where you’ll do the banking, who’ll be in charge of what, etc.
Sort out exactly what parts you are unsure of. Be sure to include the good and the bad things – things you are looking forward to, and the things that have you worried.
When your list is complete, set it aside for a day or two and let your idle brain resolve them for you. Amazingly, the brain can be extremely effective when you give it the problem and let it ‘do its thing’ while you get on with your day. Solutions will pop out at you at the most unexpected time. You will have amazing revelations when you least expect them. And at that very moment, you will experience a feeling of great satisfaction and relief.
The final step is to go back over your list and identify exactly what it is you’re afraid of and work on finding solutions. Do not labor over the problems themselves. Figure out how you’re going to deal with them, how you’ll make your decisions, decide how much on the list you can control and how you’ll control them.
For example, let’s say you are overwhelmed with unpaid bills and they are so out of control you feel you’ll never recover.
The first step is to establish why you got in this predicament in the first place. Quite possibly it’s because you didn’t set a budget. You had no idea how much you could afford to spend, so you just spent. Now the bill collectors are causing you extreme anxiety and you are dreading the imposing outcome.
In other words, you lost control of that part of your life. What you want to do now is take back control.
First, you have to figure out how to set your budget and how to figure out how much you can spend, and how you will pay off what you owe.
List all your bills with dates of when they are or were due. Start with the one that’s been overdue the longest and work your way down the list. Calculate how much your income is per month, how much you need to survive every month, and find out what’s left.
There are several ways you can proceed. You can focus on paying off the oldest bills first, or you can spread your money over all of your outstanding debts.
If this exercise causes you too much stress and anxiety, especially if you’re like me and do not have good math skills, find someone who can help you with it. Some volunteer organizations offer such services, so check at your local library, in your local phone book, or church.
Do this with the rest of the items on the list. Find solutions to all the things that make you feel anxious or nervous or that you just don’t feel comfortable with.
This exercise is a great way to take control, believe me. When all this stuff is floating around inside our brains, we get confused and anxious. Their importance magnifies to the point we blow it all out of proportion.
When we write them down, they take on a whole new perspective. They aren’t nearly as fearful as we thought. In fact, when we see some things written down we’ll feel downright silly that they scared us because they aren’t as big a problem or situation as we’d allowed ourselves to imagine.
Doing this will put you back in control so you can finally enjoy some relief from your anxiety disorder. Once you gain control of your situation, you will be ready to take back control of your life. Your anxiety disorder will dissipate and “feeling detached” will soon fade away.
One last bit of advice – only allow positive thoughts into your mind. When you doubt your ability to overcome your situation, remind yourself that you “can take control over this (because I’m strong or smart) and getting (stronger or smarter)”.